Immigration, USA, World

What I learned from my week at the border

Virginia.”

¿Dónde?” I asked, having difficulty identifying the state’s name through the boy’s thick, Spanish accent.

Virginia,” he repeated as we stood next to the map at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas—a place he had arrived to less than an hour ago.  After a long journey north and some time in a U.S. detention center, this would be his last stop before he flew out to his semi-final destination, Virginia, the following day.

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I pointed to Virginia on the map and told him a little bit of what I knew about the state—its colonial history, its beaches, its moderate climate.

“¿Y dónde estamos ahora?” Where are we now? I was almost confused by the question.  The boy—probably about 10-12 years in age—had spent the last weeks and perhaps even months of his life in the Rio Grande Valley in Southeastern Texas, yet when looking at a map of North America, he had no idea where that was.

His case was not unique.  Many of the migrants that I talked to that afternoon knew little to nothing about the places they were traveling.   They just hoped that those places would have more security and opportunity than the places from which they came.

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I did not ask the boy nor his dad what specifically they were fleeing, but I assume their story was similar to other ones I heard during the week I spent in the Rio Grande Valley.  Some were fleeing direct extortionist threats towards them and their families, threats that in some cases, had already resulted in the kidnapping or murder of people they love.  Others were fleeing more general conditions of poverty, political repression, and gang violence.  All saw the United States as a place where they could build a better life for themselves and their families.

While many possess a desire to help these migrants, the magnitude of the help that is needed is difficult to comprehend.  Sister Norma Pimentel, the respite center’s director, estimates that they are currently servicing about 600 migrants a day—a number that is slightly down from the 1,000 daily migrants that they were servicing just a few months ago.  Those numbers only become more astounding when you learn that this is a 24-hour respite center, and that their cliental turns over almost completely with each new day.

600-1000 new migrants.  Every day.  At one center.  In one town.  Along a nearly 2000-mile border.

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Nevertheless, help is what I was there to do.  I traveled under the auspices of a Minneapolis-based non-profit formerly known as the American Refugee Committee, now known as Alight.  Our mission was to implement Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, in which we spend up to $500 a day to help address some of the immediate needs of the displaced peoples we encounter.  The Changemakers 365 platform also relies heavily on organizations on the ground that have more intimate knowledge about the issues at hand, as well as established relationships with the people and communities they serve.

On this particular trip, the organizations that we connected with were all headed by Catholic nuns.  As someone who abandoned his own Catholicism half-a-lifetime ago, it was weird to find myself working alongside these Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  But for me, this week never felt like a religious experience.  The nuns were definitely god-fearing women who sought to follow in the footsteps of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, but they felt a lot more like the Jesus of Nazareth from Jefferson’s Bible as opposed to doctrine espousing mouthpieces of the Church.  To use a term that’s become rather politically charged, they were social justice warriors—women who, much like Jesus, have devoted their lives to helping the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden.

We were able to do some pretty great things to support the work that these nuns are already doing.  We helped Sister Shirley supply a breakfast to the homeless community of McAllen.  We helped Sister Catalina buy several wheelbarrows full of jeans for her migrant shelter in the Mexican border town of Reynosa.  We provided Sister Maureen with two carts full of school supplies for her community in Nuevo Progreso. We gave $500 in cash and another $500 in supermarket giftcards to a single mom and her six children who arrived in Brownsville at the church of Sister Marina and Sister Cyndi with nothing but the clothes on their backs.  These contributions made an important, and sometimes enormous impact in the immediate situations of the migrants who benefitted from them, and highlight the power of Alight’s Changemakers 365 platform, which operates under the motto, “When the world’s problems seem insurmountable, we do the doable.”

The cynical side of me is less sure about that.  The cynical side of me says that even if we made a tangible difference in the lives of all 600 migrants that showed up at the Humanitarian Respite Center on the day of our delivery, 600 new migrants will show up tomorrow.  What does our work do for them?  Furthermore, when the food and money and school supplies and clothes and giftcards that we donated run out, are the people who received them really any better off?  What do we do for the migrants whose problems cannot be fixed by a new pair of pants or a month-long prescription?

The answer is obviously to attack these problems at their roots.  After my visit, I am more convinced than ever that the key to addressing the humanitarian crisis at our southern border lies in addressing the problems that cause these migrants to flee their homelands in the first place.  If we could take the $25 billion that Trump would like to invest in a border wall and instead put it towards a “Marshall Plan” for Central America, I think that money would help not only to reduce immigration, but more importantly, help those countries become places with security and opportunity so that there is no need to seek asylum elsewhere.

To be sure, Alight is making efforts to address root causes.  The Color Movement in El Salvador comes to mind as an example, a project I hope to contribute to in the future.  But one of the biggest takeaways that I have from this adventure is the necessity of doing the doable—how essential it is to make a better today while working towards a better tomorrow.  Even if our Congress miraculously came together and approved a major investment in the troubled countries of Central America with bullseyes on poverty, corruption, and gang violence, the road to significant progress would still be long and complicated.  In the meantime, we have to do what we can to address the hardships that people are enduring now.  That’s the mission of the Sisters of the Rio Grande Valley.  That’s the mission of Alight’s 365 Changemakers program, not only at the U.S-Mexico border, but in all the world’s places that are currently experiencing a surplus of displaced peoples.  And they’re accepting donations.

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